Early discussion of the third sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark quickly ran aground on ‘the dignity of the series’. No one likes to see an old man shamed. Yet this is the same collection of films that melted faces, ate monkey brains and passed thin Scottish accents as comedy. These aren’t Merchant and Ivory productions. They’re fun adventures with smarts and a wink. When it comes to the Indiana Jones movies, between dignity and continuity, I’ll take continuity.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull delivers continuity — that is, more of the same stuff we’ve been hungry for since Lucas, Spielberg and Ford thrilled us in 1981 — but only in very small doses.

The glut of adventure movies that followed Spielberg’s last outing with Indy evidently suggested that we want a movie featuring more than just the titular lead. So the Ford/Connery buddy picture formula has been expanded into a sort of ensemble piece. Enter the estranged girlfriend (Karen Allen), missing colleague (John Hurt), rebellious youngster (Shia LaBeouf) and a greedy partner (Ray Winstone). The new characters contribute varying degrees of conviction, but thrown all into the same scene the result is like a stew with too many meats. They fuse together into something that tastes like a vague shade of grey.

The ungainly group is sent across the world in search of an alien skull. That’s not a spoiler; if the poster didn’t give away the alien aspect, the first five minutes of the movie will. The import of the Ark and Grail were obvious, but this object is more nebulous even than Temple of Doom‘s magic stones. It’s an object of attention simply as an unknown. But rather than letting the skull be a classic MacGuffin, a gateway to great action and character collisions, it is both an Object of Power and an emblem of Big Ideas. Consequently, it’s also quite silly.

The Ark and Grail were also power objects and emblems, but they had the benefit of faith to offset absurdity. (Insert dialogue about the cultural weight of religious objects versus ‘others’ here.) Only one character in this film has any conception of what the skull can really do, and he’s an idiot savant for most of the film. We’re left wondering what the fuss is about while the film assumes we’ll be bound by the basic spectacle of a glowing alien skull.

Primary villain Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) can’t motivate the action. Nazis are easy but perpetually aggressive bugbears, and a guy who pulls hearts from living men is ridiculous, but frightening. Spalko is a fetishistic babe who wields a mean rapier and thinks she can read minds. She’s also a powerful Soviet commie and we know how scary they were in the end. The movie further undermines her by presenting G-men who are far more intimidating. That is, until they disappear from the action.

(Between the lines of this script is an adventure story that takes on Hoover and the Red Scare with whip and pistol, and I’d love to see it.)

There’s more character in Blanchett’s hair and clothes than the script’s pages. In fact, you’ll feel more pressure in Tilda Swinton’s two minutes of Prince Caspian screen time than all of Blanchett’s scenes here.

Shia LeBouf’s greaser cum surrogate Indy is more fully realized. Struggling against David Koepp’s limp script, LaBeouf is as energetic and capable here as he’s been in previous films; you can see a real star being groomed. He also mediates Karen Allen’s more awkward moments. She looks happy to be in the movie — any movie — but when the action gets thick some of the clumsiness falls away and she almost looks genuine.

One factor that makes this movie tremendously different from the rest of the series is that Janusz Kaminski, rather than Douglas Slocombe, is behind the lens. An Ealing Studios vet with experience in nearly every film genre, Slocombe shot the previous three Indy pictures. (He retired after Last Crusade.) Spielberg, Lucas, Ford and Williams are Indy’s public cornerstones, but Slocombe is no less crucial. His clear, patient lighting and anamorphic composition gave Indiana Jones his appeal. Returning to an earlier point, anyone who mentions the dignity of this series is referring to Slocombe’s work, whether they know it or not.

Kaminski is a talented cinematographer (his work on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is sublime) but his touch is not at all gentle with Indiana Jones. The blown-out highlights used to such good effect in Diving Bell dress up occasional shots with no rhyme or reason. When Kaminski goes for ‘old Hollywood’ his composition looks flat. His action work is terribly shaky and despite boasts by Spielberg and Lucas about the density of practical effects, the film looks more Photoshopped than War of the Worlds.

Spielberg rarely makes even the best sequences feel like more than would-be clones of past exploits. The rest of the movie blares like Spielberg’s adventure inheritors. Paste in the faces of Brendan Fraser or Orlando Bloom and entire reels could be from films by Stephen Sommers and Gore Verbinski.

Then there’s the Lucas effect. Spielberg seems to have been willing to entertain his worst ideas. These include a pointless opening car chase, multiple gopher reaction shots, a Tarzan rope vine sequence, and a particularly awful scene with a snake that should have been cut as soon as it hit the page.

Other details rankle, like the way in which Jim Broadbent is unceremoniously shoehorned into Denholm Elliot’s shoes. A potentially suspenseful sequence in an odd Nevada town is thrown off the rails by a resolution that destroys all suspension of disbelief and, true to the Sommers/Verbinski influence, a later sequence ends with the old ‘over the waterfall’ saw. Three times.

Crystal Skull climaxes in a manner similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark, albeit over-inflated with effects and drained of potency. But a much earlier scene is the movie’s money shot. Indiana Jones stands on a low desert hill, dwarfed by a nuclear mushroom cloud. In a different movie this might have been the grand conclusion of Indy’s journey; the advent of Oppenheimer represents the end of all the things Indy represents: good winning on evil terms. In Crystal Skull, it’s just a glamour shot, empty and trying too hard. 

4.5 out of 10